Thoughts on Children in New Religions

By David G. Robertson

As Susan Palmer argued in her opening keynote at the CenSAMM conference on Millenarianism and Violence in Bedford last week, children are often the focus of particular attention within millenarian groups. As Mary Douglas argued, this is because the child is conceived of as the embodiment of the group’s ideals. The child is conceived of as both (simultaneously) perfect, and a blank slate, onto which the group may write their values.

Millennial ideas – and prophecy more generally – do not entirely concern the future, but rather the potentialities contained in the present. Concerns over the present order are critiqued using an idealised past, and projected into the future. Thus the prophetic present represents the potential of a better world, through the work of the group in question. The child therefore literally embodies that potentiality.

But we could invert the argument: if children represent the possibility of the community, is this the reason that children are so often at the centre of public and governmental concerns about New Religious Movements? Indeed , can we see the child as at the site of competition between the state and the NRM – who will inscribe their values more successfully?

As Palmer herself argued in her 2010 book The Nuwaubian Nation, charges of child abuse are a recurrent feature of accusations against minority religions. This can be seen in the histories of the The Children of God, Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, Branch Davidians, Lord Our Righteousness Church, MOVE among many, many others. We can also see it perhaps in the contemporary resurgence of media interest in Scientology, following the release of Going Clear, with contemporary concerns including the welfare of children (and Hubbard’s own children) increasingly at the centre of criticisms. Indeed, as I argued in my own paper at the conference, there is a millennial (and/or apocalyptic) subtext to paedophilia scares from the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare of the early 1990s to the very recent PizzaGate conspiracy narrative.

For each side, allowing the other side to instil their values into the child is tantamount to doing violence to them. Therefore, it can in some cases become permissible, even necessary, to commit violence to prevent this. This might well illustrate the claim by Stuart Wright later in the conference that violence is by no means an inevitable outcome of millenarianism, nor the result of some essential quality or attribute. Rather it is one possible result of the relationship between the groups and other groups, particularly legal or military, which represent the official state. Until the 1980s, the anti-cult movement relied predominantly on charges of brainwashing to encourage state intervention in NRMs. A brainwashed individual was essentially one stripped of agency and free will. The concept derived from the USA’s Asian wars of the 1950s to ‘70s, to explain why some GIs would defect to the other side. Few psychologists accept the existence of brainwashing today, however, so perhaps this is why the charges against NRMs increasing concern children.

We might also note how often children are used by the state to legitimise violence against others. Only last week, Donald Trump justified missile strikes on Syria by stating that “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.” As ever, contemporary religions offer a microcosm of broader concerns and trajectories in culture – one more reason why Religious Studies is so vital today.

A full report on the conference will be published in the BASR Bulletin in May.

Pocahontas and Colonialism


By Professor Graham Harvey

On 21 March 1617 a 22 year old woman, Lady Rebecca Rolfe, previously known as Pocahontas, was buried in St George’s church in Gravesend. On the 400th anniversary, 21 March 2017, a procession and church service commemorated her death and celebrated her alleged legacy. I was there as a scholar interested in observing the varied representations of Indigenous peoples and also their relationships with colonialism. Pocahontas / Rebecca Rolfe, provides a fascinating case study.

During the memorial procession and church service in Gravesend, no-one appeared to be dressed up as a little Princess Pocahontas. Groups of school children participated in the procession from a park beside the river Thames to the “Pocahontas Gardens” surrounding St George’s church. Many carried banners in the shape of feathers, but none of them wore feathers. The only feathered costumes in evidence were the one on the statue of Pocahontas in the church gardens and those worn by representatives of several Virginia Indian tribes who offered greetings during the church service. Visually, Pocahontas as romantic Indian was less in evidence than images of Lady Rolfe as aristocrat.

In speeches during the procession through the town and during the church service, Pocahontas was regularly called “Princess”, presumably because she was daughter of the Paramount Chief of the Powhatan Confederacy. Less often she was called “Lady Rolfe” or “Rebecca Rolfe”, recognising her status as wife of an aristocratic colonist and member of the Court of King James. She was represented as a loving Christian wife and mother, as an exemplar of Christian faith and as a peace-maker. She was celebrated as the “first fruits of Virginian conversion”, one who demonstrated the success of what Christians claimed was the civilising mission of colonialism.

The dominant theme of the commemoration was that Pocahontas provides an example of a peace-making and reconciliation both during her life and down the centuries. It was never made clear how she did this in her lifetime. Possibly this was an allusion to her alleged saving of Captain Smith’s life or to her use as a hostage by Captain Argall in order gain the release of English settlers. Two other relationships were emphasised throughout the day. The first of these was between England and Virginia (and sometimes between the UK and USA). The procession was led by bearers of the flags of the UK and USA, and continuously referred to guests from the State of Virginia. The second emphasised relationship was between Christianity and colonialism. Although the Bishop of Rochester’s sermon briefly noted the “difficulty for some” of talking about colonialism, the 400th anniversary of the death of Pocahontas was largely a celebration of an English colony. At a time when many North American Christian denominations are announcing their rejection of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (the foundational European justification for invasion and dispossession), it was unsettling to witness a ceremony in which even the representatives of Indigenous tribes celebrated the Virginia colonies as divinely mandated expansions of peace.

Much of this is summed up in one curious juxtaposition in the Pocahontas Gardens: a young man (not one of the Chiefs) sang out the names of Virginia’s Indigenous nations while standing next to the school girls who had sung the national anthems of the UK and USA at the beginning of the procession. Whoever Pocahontas was in life, remembrance of her appears to be deeply confused.

Announcement: Paul-Francois Tremlett New Head of Department

From Professor Graham Harvey

I have the pleasure of welcoming Paul-Francois Tremlett as the new head of department of Religious Studies at the Open University. Further changes face us as our new school and faculty evolve within the somewhat overwhelming changes occurring within the Open University and beyond. But we have a strong team of central academics, staff tutors, associate lecturers and administrative colleagues. In this last year we have been busy producing a new module which will be recruiting students for the autumn. Here’s a short taster film:

We have also been fortunate to add two new colleagues to our team: Suzanne Newcombe and David Robertson. They’re making significant improvements to our work and lives! New postgraduate researchers joined us in October and are widening the range of issues with which we engage. They and other postgrads will say more about themselves soon!

I’m grateful to have served my time as HoD with such excellent colleagues and friends. We have more to do and Paul will guide us through it admirably!

Taking a ‘STAND’: Scientology’s Latest Campaign for Religious Legitimacy


By Aled Thomas, PhD Candidate

The history of Scientology is peppered with conflicts between the Church of Scientology and its highly vocal critics. As ever, media depictions of the Church of Scientology (ranging from satirical lampoons to exposé documentaries) continue to be the main cause of Scientology’s woes in the public domain. Several documentaries on the activities of the Church of Scientology have been released in recent years, perhaps most notably Alex Gibney’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief in 2015.

Image result for my scientology movie

The latest Scientology documentary to grab headlines is My Scientology Movie, featuring British documentary maker Louis Theroux. The Church of Scientology declined to take part in the documentary, and (according to Theroux) are in the process of making a response documentary based on him. Yet, frequent critics of the Church of Scientology may be surprised to learn of their recent shift towards a more reserved method of responding to critics, in a contrast to the fierce legal lawsuits with which the Church is often associated. As Lewis and Hellesøy (2016) note, the 2005 episode of South Park, ‘Trapped in the Closet’, (which famously ended with lead character Stan Marsh yelling “I’m not scared of you – sue me!”) marks an interesting point in the history of the Church, precisely because of the lack of lawsuit that followed the episode’s release. This is arguably the beginning of the Church of Scientology’s shift to its latest method of countering criticism: seeking status as a legitimate religion, and condemning its opponents for religious discrimination.
The release of Theroux’s documentary coincided with the Church of Scientology’s push of campaigns to secure its status as a religion. The first is STAND (Scientologists Taking Action Against Discrimination), a campaign “founded to put a stop to incitement of bigotry and hate crime, and to secure Religious Freedom for Man”. While STAND’s prime activities concentrate on protecting the Scientology religion (including reporting the hate crimes and dispelling myths regarding Scientology), it also aims to battle all forms of religious intolerance, linking back to Scientology’s emphasis on the human right to religious freedom. This demonstration of discrimination against Scientologists as being equally condemnable as any other form of religious discrimination points to the Church’s latest focus of combating critics by rebutting their accusations as religious bigotry, and portraying Scientology as an equally legitimate religion as more established movements.

It is this battle for its status as a ‘religion’ that leads to the Church of Scientology’s second recent campaign for religious legitimacy, its website, for which the Church has turned to the expertise of the academic community. The website, which states that “the world’s foremost experts in the fields of comparative religion, history of religion, religious studies and sociology agree that Scientology is a world religion”, compiles works from renowned scholars on Scientology (including Beckford, Wilson, and Melton) to add emphasis to the Church of Scientology’s latest message to opponents: that Scientology is a legitimate religion, and as such should receive the rights of religious freedom.

This coupling of campaigning against discrimination and using the expertise of the academy to validate the religiosity of Scientology points to a Church that may be slightly more reserved than the one associated with ferocious legal battles, but is clearly still up for a fight. Time will tell how effective this new method will be for the Church of Scientology, but the conflict remains the same as it has for decades. The tactics may have changed, but both parties remain unchanged, and neither side is showing any sign of backing down yet.


Lewis, J. R. and Hellesøy, K. (2016) ‘Introduction’, in Lewis, J. R. and Hellesøy, K. (eds.), Handbook of Scientology, Leiden, Brill.

Paul-Francois Tremlett on Politics and Religion

Paul-Francois Tremlett recently appeared in the Student Hub Live’s (re)Freshers Event, talking about his work on religion and politics. He introduces Reassembling Democracy, an international project which the Open University is involved with, and talks about his work on protest and ritual, and non-human agents. You can watch the interview below, and you can read the transcript here.

SEMINAR: Stephen Quilley, “Environmentalism on the Margins”

We are looking forward to welcoming Dr. Stephen Quilley of the University of Waterloo, Ontario, to the Open University on April 19th. He will be presenting a paper entitled “Environmentalism at the Margins: Exploring existing possibilities for an alternative modernity” in room MR05, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, from 14:00-16:00 (abstract below). Please join us if you can for what is sure to be a lively and stimulating talk – and if you can’t be there in person, we’ll be streaming the presentation on our Facebook page. More details here –


Understood as a complex adaptive system and through the lens of Holling’s Panarchy heuristic, modern industrial capitalism is a ‘deep basin of attraction’. The global consumer society has proved itself to be a profoundly resilient system – resilient, but nevertheless biophysically limited.  As the metabolism of global civilization begins to breach significant thresholds and transgress ‘planetary boundaries’ humanity is approaching social-ecological ‘tipping points’.  Experiencing the concatenating effects of collapsing economies, degraded ecosystems, social crisis, political chaos, communal violence and war, failed and failing states are tracing the outlines of an undesirable basin of attraction defined by collapse. The challenge facing humanity amounts to a rather simple wicked dilemma: is it possible to reconcile technological and socio-political modernity (and all the requisite flows of materials, energy and information) with biosphere integrity and sustainable global life support systems. In this paper, we argue that the alternative modernity defined by this wicked problem should be envisaged as a ‘third basin of attraction’ i.e. the often-vaunted political economy of the ‘third way’ construed through the language of systems theory. In this paper, we explore the outlines of such an ‘attractor’ in terms of political economy, technological prerequisites and problems of culture/ontology. We explore some of the prefigurative possibilities evoked by various ‘environmentalisms at the margins’ i.e. counter-cultural lifestyles, intentional communities, disruptive technologies and practices, and alternative social commitments. These are building niches in diverse settings that could begin to contour space for a new kind of modernity, one that could enable socially and technologically complex human societies to thrive without compromising long-term ecological integrity.  Specifically, we investigate how community-based health systems, micro-fabrication and Maker culture, and new religious movements at the periphery of the environmental movement may contribute to a developing ‘third basin of attraction’ – an alternative to the primary basin of attraction of consumer capitalism and the all too near second basin of societal collapse.

Historical Religion in Contemporary Perspective?

Not only is it important to consider contemporary religion in its historical context, but we need to consider the study of contemporary religion in its historical context too.

Arrarnte elders, Alice Springs, 1896. Via Wikimedia commons.

Arrarnte elders, Alice Springs, 1896. Via Wikimedia commons.

I recently attended a talk by Professor James Cox on cultural memory among the Australian Aboriginal people. In particular, Cox focused on the work of T.G.H. (Ted) Strehlow among the Arrarnte people, recording the traditions of the Elders. Many of these stories and rituals were later compiled in Aranda Traditions (1947) and Songs of Central Australia (1971). He was initiated into the tribe, whereupon several of his elderly informants confided in him that they could not rely on their sons or grandsons to preserve their stories, rituals or sacred objects (tjurunga). If not for Strehlow, almost all of these would have been forgotten a generation later, which Cox described as a break in the chain of memory (invoking the work of Danielle Hervieu-Leger). However, Strehlow’s work has allowed the current generation to relearn these tales and practices, in what Cox described as a process of “repatriation”.

No doubt, this is an empowering situation for present-day Arrarnte people, and important for addressing the problematic legacy of colonialism. But this set me thinking about the idea of a chain of memory. How do we know for sure that this was an ancient tradition? Might it have been the case that the elders had forgotten as much of the traditions of their forefathers as the present generation had of theirs? The fact is, without evidence, we are simply guessing. Worse, we are possibly making the rather colonial assumption that such indigenous people existed in a timeless state, essentially unchanged since prehistory – at least until they encountered Europeans.

There is a tendency to see the modern world as something special, a period which is dramatically and fundamentally different from all that has gone before. For all that we have gained, the argument goes, like technology, literacy, human rights, we have lost other things, like community, simplicity, perhaps even enchantment. Before we could blame it on the Internet, the Victorians harked back to a pre-industrial pastoral existence as they rushed into the soot-smothered cities, and the incipient scholars of the Enlightenment harked back to the pagan grandeur of Greece and Rome.

Ironically, then, separating our age from what has gone before is exactly what previous ages have done. Modern scholars are no different; indeed, the idea is there from the moment that we started to look at modern society seriously. Weber saw an iron cage of disenchantment; Durkheim saw the complexification of society leading to anomie and suicide; Frazer saw a progression from magic to science, whereas Müller saw a degeneration from natural, pure religiosity. The secularisation thesis has been refined and reformulated over time, but was originally based upon the teleological idea of an inevitable move from superstition to religion to science. Yet as we now know, it is increasingly difficult to make the data fit this argument.

Perhaps this is the issue: data. The further back we go, the more we are working with official data and less with the thoughts, deeds and ideas of ordinary people. Where there are primary documents, they are difficult to read at face value due to years of interpretation and even redaction. But when looking at the modern world, we are awash with data, drowning in it almost, from every level and section of society.

The study of contemporary religion is rich in ethnological specificity and deals well with change. What would a study of indigenous religion – or Medieval Catholicism, or the Classical world – which assumed not stability and tradition, but constant reformulation, innovation and diversification look like? Understanding contemporary religion in historical perspective might be an approach which helps us to understand the religion of the past as well.

A Harvest of Fieldwork

As I recover from another academic conference, and contemplate the news that I’ve been awarded university funding to go full-time on my PhD here with the Open University, I’m looking back over an epic summer. This was my first sustained fieldwork experience after a number of exploratory visits to sites in previous years.Theo article

My research project investigates diverse, post-lineage forms of modern yoga practice, in some unusual environments. My focus is in part the practice itself – what it looks like and how it is experienced – but also the culture that sustains it. Mostly, that means immersing myself in a series of camps and small festivals held over the rather short British summer. It’s a culture I knew already a little, but this summer took my understanding of my subject, and the process of fieldwork itself, to a whole new level.

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